Thai environmentalists take Mekong dam issue to court

An environmentalist group has filed a lawsuit urging the government to oppose the construction of yet another dam on the Mekong in Lao PDR, saying local participation must be more than window dressing. 
 
On 8 June 2017, an environmental conservation group called Khon Rak Chiang Kong filed a lawsuit at the Administrative Court against the Thai National Mekong Committee Secretariat, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Department’s Director-General. 
 
The group asked the court to order both organisations to oppose construction of the Pak Beng Dam on the Mekong River.   
 
The Pak Beng Dam project was initiated in December 2016 and impact studies are currently being conducted in accordance with the 1995 Mekong Agreement. The DWR and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) are responsible for assessing the social and environmental impacts of the dam, and in Thailand have hosted four public hearings in three provinces to collect local people’s opinions and inform them about the dam’s construction. This process is scheduled to finish in June. 
 
But prosecuting lawyer Sor Rattanamanee Polkla says that the agencies have not facilitated local participation in the hearing process. Thailand has eight provinces that lie along the Mekong River but the hearings were hosted in only three provinces and all documents distributed to the participants were in English. 
 
The lawyer points out further that, according to numerous studies, past dam construction has significantly affected the Mekong’s ecology. While it is the DRW’s responsibility to protect water resources, it has never opposed dam construction. 
 
“We have petitioned many agencies including the Fisheries Department and the Royal Irrigation Department. They are all concerned about the damage that could be inflicted on the Mekong River. Since even other government agencies [oppose the dam], the DWR, who is directly responsible for taking care of the river, should listen and pass these concerns to the Lao government,” said Sor Rattanamanee.
 
But the leader of Khon Rak Chiang Kong, Niwat Roikaew, fears that government agencies will never take people’s opinions into account. Impact assessments are often merely a rubber-stamp.
 
“I hope this lawsuit will be a lesson for relevant agencies. We want to show that this development project on the Mekong River is problematic. There is very little regulation. We want the public to realise that this needs to be fixed. Public hearings must be more than a rubber-stamp,” stated Niwat.
 
Niwat added that similar projects, the Xayaburi dam and Don Sahong dam, have already caused substantial harm to local people. He urges the government not only to focus on economic growth, but to take into account sustainability. 
 
“The Mekong is an international river but no one talks about preservation and maintenance. There are only claims to the rights to reap benefits. China makes claims. Lao makes claims. Vietnam makes claims. Cambodia also makes claims. But when it comes to maintenance, everyone is silent. The voices of over 70 million people living along the Mekong River are left unheard. It is because governments only ever think about the economy,” Niwat argued.
 
This is not the first time local people have fought to protect the Mekong River. In 2012, Niwat and his group petitioned the Administrative Court to revoke the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT)’s contract to use the Xayaburi dam to generate electricity. Niwat argued that the contract was signed before impact assessments were conducted.
 
The court dismissed the case in 2014 but Niwat is appealing the case to the Supreme Administrative Court.     
 
 
Niwat (thrid from the left) and other members of Khon Rak Chiang Kong at the Administrative Court